by Patricia Rice
me, right?” Aurora Jenkins glanced at the nearly empty budget file the head
of the tourist commission handed her. “You want me to spin gold out of
narrow shoulders at her disparaging words, Terry Talbert retreated to his
desk so she didn’t tower over him. “We’re all volunteers here, Rora. We have
a million-dollar grant, but no one with your financial expertise.”
No one else had
her big mouth and opened it so frequently, she corrected, mentally kicking
herself. She’d just been laid off from her lucrative bank position for
opening her mouth one too many times. But this time, she’d done it for her
She could fix her
career easily enough, but she was pinning her family’s future on the state
park plan represented by this meager file. Volunteering her time and
expertise had seemed the best means of getting on the inside track. Now it
looked as if she would have the responsibility of making the park happen. No
point endangering this golden opportunity by telling Terry he was a lazy
bag, she slipped the file into it. “I’ll start with land acquisitions. Who’s
this Thomas Clayton McCloud? I’ve never heard of him.” This was a small
town and she’d grown up here. She thought she knew everyone.
guru the mayor’s mother thinks is cute.” Terry grimaced in distaste. “You
know how things get done around here. ”
Yep, she did.
She’d just landed this position because she’d been Terry’s high school lab
partner. Networking, that was called in the city.
“And ‘cute’ will
acquire the land how?” she asked. “With charming smiles and asking if we
could have the beach, pretty please?”
“Not from McCloud. He’s a surly bastard. Check him out. He’s usually sitting
on the courthouse roof at this hour.”
Oh, good, surly
bastards were right up her alley. A good fight to get the old adrenaline
going, and she could put an end to the park right now. Keep the big
mouth shut, Rora.
“Is it too soon to
resign my commission?” Rolling her eyes but not giving back the file, Rory
headed for the door. She’d accomplished more impossible feats than
persuading budgets out of surly computer gurus who sat on courthouse roofs.
Maybe not any quite so colorful though. The sophisticated city life she’d
been leading paled in comparison.
him until you get the list of landowners out of him!” Terry called after
Once she had the
list of heirs to that tract, the state could start purchasing land for the
park. The sooner the island had a park, the sooner they could bring some
tourist money in here to fill her family’s pockets, and she could be on her
way again. Maybe she would take a job in Chicago this time. The skyline
there was spectacular, and the culture and night life beat Charlotte’s by a
country mile. A career move would be good for her.
Walking out of city hall, she nearly
bumped into Jeff Spencer, the town banker, conversing with the elderly
mayor. They both knew her but didn’t acknowledge her existence.
Recognizing the attitude, she shrugged and stepped out of their way. She
wasn’t rocking any more boats these days.
Breathing in the sweet scent of blooming
jasmine, she glanced up the oak-lined street to her rural hometown’s only
claim to a skyline. The gilding on the clock tower of the courthouse gleamed
in the bright May sun.
Built shortly after the Civil War, the
steepled courthouse was too small and dark to be effective for anything
except recordkeeping, but they still used it for all their criminal
proceedings. Not that a place this size had much more than a few drunk and
Given her father’s rowdy habits, Rory had
been on the inside of the courthouse a few more times than she cared to
recall—one of the many reasons the town’s substantial citizens ignored her.
Walking beneath live oaks trailing gray
beards of Spanish moss, she studied the high-pitched roof of the city
landmark, easily locating what appeared to be a half-naked Greek god perched
at the peak, tampering with the clock’s internal mechanism. It looked to her
like it would be easier to tackle the job from inside the tower, but who was
she to argue with mechanical genius? Or Greek gods? His shoulders alone were
The clock never had run properly, not
since the mayor’s daddy “fixed” it back during World War II, according to
town legend. She kind of liked the fact that the clock always ran slow no
matter how many times someone set it. It seemed to depict the town’s
cautious attitude of living one step behind the times.
If McCloud looked as good up close as he
did from down here, she’d be willing to climb up there and join him.
Obviously a victim of her sexless life,
Rory shook her head at her voyeurism. She had enough complications in her
life without adding a man to it. Someday her prince might come, but in the
meantime she was perfectly happy building her own castles.
Emerging from the shade to stand on the
courthouse lawn, she called up to him. “Thomas McCloud?” She wondered if her
voice would carry that far. Climbing the ladder leaning against the side of
the building wasn’t on her agenda for the morning.
Rory couldn’t tell whether it was her
voice that caused him to halt what he was doing or if he’d just decided to
take a drink. Either way, he slipped his screwdriver into a tool belt,
picked up a bottle of water, and glanced downward through his expensive
Calling his name again, she waved at him
to catch his attention.
From her view on the ground, Thomas
McCloud could have doubled as a movie star—sun-bleached hair, slim hips,
taut, tanned abdomen, and admirable pecs. And all attitude, she’d just about
swear, waiting for the movie-star illusion to dispel the instant McCloud
opened his mouth.
Shoving the aviator glasses into his
thick, wavy hair, he lifted the water bottle in a salute, took a drink, set
the bottle down on a ledge, and pulled his screwdriver out of his tool belt,
completely ignoring her. Attitude. She’d known it. The good-looking ones
were born with it.
“Thomas McCloud, I need to talk with
you!” she shouted at him.
He carefully unscrewed one corner of the
clock frame and dropped the screws into a pouch on his belt without once
She damned well didn’t intend to stand
here screaming like a jay, making a spectacle of herself. The townspeople
already thought little enough of her family without confirming their
“trailer trash” reputation.
Rory marched around the courthouse and up
the steps. She’d been the one who’d taught her classmates how to climb up
into the tower.
She supposed a sensible person would have
gone on to the next order of business and hoped to catch one Thomas Clayton
McCloud in another time and place. But life had taught her that the timid
got walked over and the stubborn got things done.
Besides, he’d ticked her off by ignoring
her. She wouldn’t have accomplished as much as she had if she’d let people
“How you doing, Elena?” Leaning on the
counter in the DMV office, Rory greeted the file clerk who’d worked there
Sliding her purple-rimmed glasses on top
of her gray hair, the clerk smiled a greeting. “Aurora, how good to see
Rory waved her hand at the door partially
hidden behind a bank of file cabinets. “I need to climb up there and talk to
the clown on the roof. Is the staircase accessible these days?”
“He’s a sight to behold, isn’t he? If
only I were thirty years younger.” Elena reached behind an antique wooden
file cabinet and removed a key from a hook.
“I thought it was only the high school
kids who sought attention by climbing up there.” Rory accepted the key and
started around the counter.
“He never talks to anyone, so I guess
it’s not attention he’s after.” She tucked a pencil into the bun of hair at
her nape and grabbed a shrilly ringing phone, waving Rory on.
Clasping the key in her fist, Rory wended
her way past desks and cabinets and assorted equipment to pry open the
squeaking door. She wrinkled her nose at the musty stench emanating from the
wooden structure. If the town ever hired a real live fire marshal who
actually inspected buildings, he’d probably condemn this stairway. Until
then, she needed a broom to clear out the cobwebs.
Checking a nearby janitor’s closet and
finding a worn broom, Rory thanked the good Lord for people who never
changed their habits. She could swear this was the same broom she’d used the
first time she’d sneaked up the stairs. Wielding the handle, she brushed
aside cobwebs and cleared a path.
The old staircase seemed safe enough.
With her sensible heels slapping the wooden treads so he could hear her
coming, Rory climbed to the third story landing and located the vent
overlooking the roof.
“McCloud!” she called, rattling the
louver until it opened enough for her to see out. “I need to talk with you.
You want to do it here or somewhere more appropriate?”
The clock tower was actually overhead,
perched on the peak of the roof, so she had to look up as well as out to see
the mechanic. Mostly, she could see his long, jeans-clad legs. Apparently
amused by her call, he peered over his sunglasses at the open louvers, but
she figured he couldn’t see her. “There’s a ladder in here,” she shouted. “I
can climb up there if I have to.”
“I like a woman with perseverance. Give
me a minute to screw down this frame. I’ll meet you down at the Monkey.”
He didn’t possess the honeyed drawl of a
local man, but he had a deep, sexy voice that crawled right down inside her
and made itself at home. Rory shivered in appreciation, then rolled her
He hadn’t even asked why she wanted to
talk with him. Men! He probably thought his body was all she
was after. Rory watched to be certain he was fastening the frame, then
trudged down the way she’d come.
The Blue Monkey was her father’s favorite
hangout, but it also served short-order meals and didn’t mind serving
sailors who dragged in from the harbor covered in grease. It would be
air-conditioned and not too busy at this hour, so she couldn’t argue with
his choice of meeting places.
Rory didn’t recognize the young
bartender, so she was safe in ordering a soft drink without a recitation of
where she’d been and what she’d been doing since high school. She sighed at
the ever-present contest slogan on the label of the bottle he slid across
the bar to her, but she checked under the cap, just in case. Her father’s
penchant for playing contests had started rubbing off on her since she’d
returned home. Something about placing her hopes in the hands of fate
appealed when she had no other options.
Flinging the “Sorry, try again” cap to
the bar, she turned to study the jukebox. The playlist hadn’t changed since
Elvis had checked out. She punched in a Simon and Garfunkel song from the
seventies and took her glass and bottle to the first booth.
“Bridge over Troubled Water” hit its last wailing note as Thomas Clayton McCloud sauntered in. He’d
apparently taken time to scrub off in a rest room, wetting his long,
sun-streaked hair. He wore the ash brown length tied back with a leather
thong against his bronzed nape. He’d donned a plaid cotton shirt to cover
his bare chest, but with the sleeves ripped off, it didn’t do much to
disguise his sculpted biceps.
Rory had to bite her tongue to prevent
drooling as he slid into the booth across from her, exuding male pheromones.
Brains won over brawn any day in her book, but that didn’t stop her from
appreciating the view when he crossed his sinewy arms on the table. This was the town’s computer expert?
He lifted his sunglasses, sliding them
into his overlong hair. Up close, Rory could see that it had an unruly curl
to the ends. The sunglasses had partially concealed a broad nose with a
slight downward slope instead of the classically handsome one she’d
expected. He wasn’t Hollywood pretty, but his long-lashed gray eyes could
ring her chimes any day.
“There’d better be a good reason for
dragging me down here this early in the day.” With a gesture at the
bartender, he ordered a beer. The boy knew his brand of choice without
asking and carried the bottle over still sweating from the cooler.
Sipping the beer, Clay admired the glory
of the full-figured redhead across from him—his fantasy Viking princess
sprung to life in Technicolor. She’d twisted strands of her strawberry-blond
mane into a knot at the back of her head, but it was too heavy to stay in
the pins. One escaped lock curved in a delicate line along her throat, just
brushing her red silk shirt. The stiff-collared, no-nonsense shirt didn’t
bother him, but the gray business suit she wore with it warned he really
didn’t want to hear what she had to say. He didn’t listen to suits these
Leaning back against the wooden bench, he
took a good chug of beer and waited for her to get past his rudeness. No
sense in encouraging whatever maggot had stuck in her craw. Instead, he
engaged his mind in admiring the way her luscious lips tightened into a
“I’m Aurora Jenkins,” she said with only
a hint of the soft drawl of the island inhabitants. “Terry Talbert has put
me in charge of developing a budget for the park grant. I have an MBA in
finance and grew up here, so I volunteered to help him out for a while.”
Raising an eyebrow, Clay continued
sipping his beer, waiting for her to come around to what she really wanted.
In the dim light of the bar, her eyes
appeared almost violet. They narrowed at his nonresponse.
“I’m developing a budget for the land
planning grant,” she continued without voicing an iota of frustration at his
stonewalling. “I understand you’re overseeing the software development of a
program capable of identifying and locating the Bingham heirs. If you
haven’t pulled your cost figures together yet, I can help you with them.”
snorted beer out of his nose. Wiping the smirk off his face with the back of
his hand, he leaned forward, bringing them face-to-face across the narrow
table. “I do software. I don’t do numbers.”
“The state requires numbers, Mr.
“The state can go screw itself. I’m
working for next to nothing and nothing is what they’ll get if they don’t
leave me alone.”
that attitude, maybe nothing is all you have and all you ever will have, Mr. McCloud. Perhaps I should
suggest that the state find a different person to locate the heirs?”
“In my experience, you may suggest to
them that the moon is blue, and they’ll appoint a committee to study the
matter and make a decision sometime in the next century. Don’t let me stop
you.” Flinging a bill on the table, Clay slid out of the booth.
It was a damned shame that great body was
wasted on a narrow-minded number cruncher, but he was sticking to simple
minds and simple tastes these days—even if Aurora Jenkins’ curves could
“The park is imperative to our future,
Mr. McCloud. We need a budget to get the state grant. I’ll present you with
a suggested budget for your division next week,” she called after him.
He almost laughed out loud at that. He
should have known any woman willing to tackle that spider-infested tower
wouldn’t give up easily. Turning, he winked at her in his best obnoxious
manner. “You’d be better off hunting for the late mayor’s missing fortune
than to trust the state.”
He walked out, letting the door slam
Missing fortune, her foot and eye. If
she could find a fortune, she’d be out of here so fast, his head would spin.
Cursing, Rory fumbled in her purse for
some change so she could pay up and leave.
Where the hell did he get that
my-way-or-the-highway attitude? Was he born with it? Did someone teach it
Could she hit him over the head with a
two-by-four and bash it out of him? There was a reason she preferred the
pinstripe-suit crowd these days. She could control her temper better in the
secure environment of intelligent people who shared rational goals.
“Clay took care of it,” the bartender
said, sweeping the bill off the table before she found her change purse.
“Put the money against his tab.”
Refusing to take anything from the bastard, Rory threw a couple of ones on
She’d have to investigate Thomas Clayton
McCloud more thoroughly before she approached him next time. Did he have any
business background at all? Did he even have an education? How much did he
actually know about programming? It was a real stretch to believe he could
find the on switch of a PC.
She bet he found the on switch of every
woman who crossed his path. Fanning herself with a file folder as she left
the bar, Rory tried to ignore all the hormones exploding like little
bombshells in less noble parts of her.
McCloud exuded sex
appeal like bees secreted honey. She didn’t have the time or the patience to
play little boy games. He could go exude on some other hapless female.